The First Women to Finish the Boston Marathon | Unheard History

        261. Numbers have a funny way of defining us in our lives. They make up the day we're born. They make up which grade level we're at in school. They tell you if you can afford to buy that meal or pay your rent this month. Sometimes they even become a symbol of a moment that defined the rest of your life.
        When 261 was given to Kathrine Switzer at the 1967 Boston Marathon she had no idea she was about to become the subject of the picture that changed the face of marathons.
THE Moment

In Boston, Massachusetts, April 19th is a special day known as Patriot’s Day. This holiday commemorates the American patriots who fought the British in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. These were the first battles of what came to be known as the American Revolutionary War. In 1894 the holiday was established as not only to honor that day but also the Baltimore Riot of 1861, which was the first bloodshed of the American Civil War. To honor these tremendous events full of turmoil and remorse there would be re-enactments of the battles and significant events such as Paul Revere and William Dawes' Midnight Rides.
In 1897 began the Boston Marathon, now the most famous event of Patriot's Day. A year prior, the Olympic Games had returned and with them, a new event called the marathon. When American athletes came back to the states they recollected this event and soon the holiday organizers decided that a marathon in their city would be an excellent way to honor the long struggle for liberty that both Americans and Athenians had suffered through.
Almost seventy years after the Boston Marathon was established rose two women, whose struggles in participating and being recognized in said marathon would garner another outstanding moment in the long and grueling history of liberty and equality in America.
Kathrine Virginia Switzer, more commonly known as Kathy was born on January 5, 1947, in Amberg, Germany presumably on an American military base as her father was a major in the United States Army. Having moved back to the States in 1949 Kathy went on to graduate from George C. Marshall High School in Virginia and eventually attended Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York in 1967. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in 1968 and a master's degree in 1972. 
          It was in Syracuse during a mid-December snowstorm in 1966 that a now infamous argument occurred between Kathy and her coach Arnie Briggs. Being the sixties there were no women's running teams at Syracuse or anywhere else in the country. This meant Kathy had to settle for being trained unofficially with the men's cross-country team. Arnie, who trained with the team for years, was actually the university's mailman along with being a veteran of 15 Boston Marathons. Arnie was thrilled to have his first woman on the team. He often goaded her in their vigorous evening sessions about his famous Boston stories. Although Kathy often loved hearing these stories, that snowy day in December she snapped, saying, "Oh, let's quit talking about the Boston Marathon and run the damn thing!"
          "No woman can run the Boston Marathon," Arnie argued.
          "Why not? I'm running 10 miles a night!"
          Her coach further persisted that the distance was "too long for fragile women to run." Arnie's anger could have melted the snow when Kathy pointed out that Roberta Gibb had finished the Boston Marathon that April. 
            This was absolutely true.
            Roberta Louise Gibb also known as Bobbi was born on November 2, 1942, in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a chemistry professor at Tufts University School of Special Studies. Bobbi later attended the university herself. It was while she was attending Tufts in 1962 when she met another runner named William Bingay, her future first husband. The two married on February 5, 1966, in California. Around this time Bobbi sent in an application to the Boston Marathon as she'd been training for the past two years to compete in it. Even going so far as 40 miles in a day. 
          Race director Will Cloney wrote back to her saying, "women were not physiologically capable of running marathon distances and that under the rules that governed amateur sports set out by the AAU, women were not allowed to run more than a mile and a half competitively." 
            This set a fire underneath Bobbi. This was no longer just about her and her need to run. That her running was now a social rebellion, a challenge that went far and above her. She traveled for three nights and four days on a bus from San Diego, California back to her parent's home in Winchester, Massachusetts to be there for the big race. The morning of April 19, 1966, came. Donning her brother's Bermuda shorts, a blue hooded sweatshirt, and a black tanked-top swimsuit, she hid in the bushes near the starting line for the starting gun to fire. As it went off she waited until a good portion of the pack had begun until she jumped into the race. 
           Through sheer amazement, Bobbi was shortly greeted with encouragement and support from her fellow male racers, enough so that she was able to remove her sweatshirt and run comfortably. By far none this is my favorite recollection of how the crowd reacted to Bobbi being in the race from Diana Chapman Walsh, who later went on to be the President of Wellesley College herself, saying,
That was my senior year at Wellesley. As I had done every spring since I arrived on campus, I went out to cheer the runners. But there was something different about that Marathon Day—like a spark down a wire, the word spread to all of us lining the route that a woman was running the course. For a while, the "screech tunnel" fell silent. We scanned face after face in breathless anticipation until just ahead of her, through the excited crowd, a ripple of recognition shot through the lines and we cheered as we never had before. We let out a roar that day, sensing that this woman had done more than just break the gender barrier in a famous race…3
      Though Bobbi was met with excitement at the time the AAU refused to let women race, even though Bobbi clearly put down any statement that women weren't physically able to do so. She had done this by finishing faster than 290 of the 415 contestants. In lieu of this, we'll go back to Kathy in her mid-December snowstorm eight months later.  
"No dame ever ran the Boston Marathon!" Arnie shouted. “If any woman could do it you could, but you would have to prove it to me. If you ran the distance in practice, I’d be the first to take you to Boston.”
How was this a reality?
Enthusiasm elating through her, Kathy went on to train just as Bobbi had and three weeks before the 1967 Boston Marathon, Kathy ran not only 26 miles but went on to run a total of 31 miles causing Arnie to pass out. Keeping to his word, Arnie insisted that Kathy sign up for the race saying it was wrong to go against the AAU (via vis what Bobbi had done the year prior). Besides the outrageous amount of inane sexism in this story, the most shocking thing is that the entry fee was only $ 3.00.  You can barely breathe without paying $3.00!
 She ended up registering as K.V. Switzer and her then-boyfriend, Big Tom Miller, joined her without having trained saying, “if a girl can run a marathon, I can run a marathon.” Mind you he was an ex-football player but football and long-distance running are not the same skill. Joining them was another student on the cross-country team, John Leonard.
The night before the historic marathon, Kathy, now in Boston with her team, called up her parents to explain what a marathon was and where she was. “It is important for me to finish the race.”
Her father responded, “Aw hell, kid, you can do it. You’re tough, you’ve trained, you’ll do great!”
April 19,1967 came and in true New England fashion, it came with freezing rain, sleet, and winds. The perfect mixings for any good sporting event. While suiting up for the long day ahead, Kathy carefully applied her makeup and gold earbobs, wanting to look feminine for the race. It was as a team when they came to the starting point that Kathy got her number.
The idea of a sweatshirt dying is everything
Just like the year prior with Bobbi, as Kathy was warming up many of the other contestants noticed that in fact, she was *gasp* a girl!
“Hey! You gonna go the whole way?”
“Gosh, it’s great to see a girl here!”
“Can you give me some tips to get my wife to run? She’d love it if I can just get her started.”
Were just a few of the compliments Kathy was given. Funny enough it was her own teammate and boyfriend who after noticing her lipstick told her, “Somebody might see you are a girl and not let you run. Take it off.”
“I will not take off my lipstick,” Kathy retorted. 
    This is how they entered the race. As they shouldered through the throng that had become of the starting pen, organizers checked and verified numbers, which Kathy held up proudly and to no notice of the official who seemed to be just trying to get all the runners out on their marks.
Then they were off.
For four miles the team ran with no problem and having the time of their lives. Then came mile four with a flurry of honking horns met with shouts, “Get over, runners move to your right!” The press bus had come to take their picture as they ran. All of this was well until a man with an overcoat and felt hat reached out towards Kathy, saying something, trying to grab her hand and only being able to tear off her glove. She at first thought he was a crazy spectator. That was until she saw the blue and gold BAA ribbon on his lapel.
…I heard the scraping noise of leather shoe coming up fast behind me… When a runner hears that kind of noise, it’s usually danger – like hearing a dog’s paws on the pavement. Instinctively I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen. A big man… with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, "Get the Hell out of my race and give me those numbers!"
The man slashed forward to rip Kathy’s number off but she leaped backward away from him and ran. The man grabbed the back of her shirt and tried again to tear 261 from her chest.
“I was making little cries of aa-uh, aa-uh, not thinking at all, just trying to get away, when I saw tiny brave Arnie bat at him and try to push him away, shouting, ‘Leave her alone, Jock. I’ve trained her, she’s okay, leave her alone!’”
“Stay out of this, Arnie!” The man shrieked and swatted at her coach.
“The bottom was dropping out my stomach; I had never felt such embarrassment and fear. I’d never been manhandled, never even spanked as a child, and the physical power and swiftness of the attack stunned me. I felt unable to flee, like I was rooted there, and indeed I was, because… Jock…had me by the shirt. Then a flash of orange flew past and hit Jock with a cross-body block. It was Big Tom, in the orange Syracuse sweatshirt. There was a thud- whoomph!- and Jock was airborne. He landed on the roadside like a pile of wrinkled clothes. Now I felt terror. We’ve killed this guy Jock. It’s my fault, even though hothead Tom did it. My God, we’re all going to jail. Then  I saw Arnie’s face- it was full of fear, too; his eyes were goggled and he shouted, ‘Run like Hell!’ All the adrenaline kicked in and down the street we ran, flying past the press truck, running like kids out of a haunted house.”
As they fled the scene the press truck accelerated after them screaming, “Go after her, go after her!” A melee of cameras, reporters, and curses hounded them. Between all this terrifying business as heated words were thrown out by all, Kathy felt she should step off the course. She didn’t want to ruin the prestigious race that was the Boston Marathon.  However, Kathy knew, just as Bobbi a year prior (who was also attending this race) that if she quit they’d never let or accept that women were indeed very capable of running 26+ miles. That if she quit Jock Semple, the official and those like him would win. This is when her terror and embarrassment turned into the anger-fueled adrenaline that kept Kathy running.
When the press truck gave up on Kathy, forgoing the notion that she was trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes was when Tom began to argue with Kathy. “You’re getting me into all kinds of trouble!... I’ve hit an official, and now I’ll get kicked out of the AAU.”
“I didn’t hit the official, you hit the official, Tom,” Kathy had mumbled, embarrassed now that they were arguing in public.
“Oh great, yeah, thanks a lot for nothing. I should never have come to Boston.”
“It was your idea to come to Boston!”
This was when Tom ripped off his numbers, threw them to the ground, shouting, “I am never going to make the Olympic team and it’s all your fault. Besides that, you run too slow anyway.” He added with a hiss before disappearing in the wave of runners before them.
All of this and still 20 miles left to go.
This story is just… So wild.
Through all that, both Bobbi and Kathy finished that day. This time it was Kathy’s turn to headline the news, as her assault and continuation after the assault was heralded across the sports pages of several newspapers and magazines. These women broke down barriers with sweat, tears, fear, and blood-soaked shoes. However, I think by far my favorite recollection and reflection from Kathy were that prior to the attack she had felt special and proud of herself for doing what she’d done as a woman. Then as the day wore on she realized she wasn’t that ‘special’ she’d just been lucky. Many women, at the time and even now, aren't given the opportunities to prove and/or dispell myths that have ruled over their lives and stopped them from doing something they very well could have done.
Doing something is just as powerful as giving somebody else the opportunity to participate. I find that many of these History of Love’s and Unheard History’s are just stories of people who were lucky enough to have those opportunities. Of course, their accomplishments are all their own and they worked tremendously hard for them, but whose to say that there aren’t others out there who didn’t get the opportunity that could have worked just as, if not, harder than they did?

Thank you, Bobbi and Kathy, for persisting on your paths to follow your dreams. Thank you for challenging the societal norms. You’ve both help implement change that led the way for others to have their opportunity and reach their full potential.

Until Next Time,

If you’d like to read the entirety of Kathy’s story, which I highly recommend doing as I cut out a lot, you can view it on her official website in the links below.

 Sources and further reading:
  1. Kathrine Switzer's Official Website
  2. Boston Marathon: The First Century of the World's Premier Running Event
  3. Marathon's Elite Women Runners Defy Spring Snow to Speak at Wellesley College
  4. A Game Girl In A Man's Game
  5. Why Does Boston Hold a Marathon on Patriot's Day?


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